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The Cool Gent
The Nine Lives of Radio Legend Herb Kent
By Herb Kent, David Smallwood
Chicago Review Press Incorporated Copyright © 2009 Herb Kent
All rights reserved.
Amos 'n' Andy debuted on radio in 1928, but those were not the characters' original names. What were Amos and Andy first called?
(ANSWER ON PAGE 10)
Ahhh, 1928. It was a very good year.
The United States was in the midst of Prohibition, but the good times of the '20s were still roarin'! Calvin Coolidge, who uttered the famous line "The business of America is business," was the lame duck president about to be succeeded by Herbert Hoover, and Al Capone was somewhere planning the St. Valentine's Day Massacre that would take place the following February.
Wings, released in March, would win the first Academy Award for Outstanding Picture the next year; there was no such animal as television; and the music charts were topped by Duke Ellington's "Diga Diga Doo," Louis Armstrong's "West End Blues," and "It's Tight Like That," by Tampa Red and Georgia Tom Dorsey.
Mickey Mouse, Rice Krispies, Louisiana Hot Sauce, and penicillin all made their debuts, and a first-class stamp was two cents.
Let's take a look at some of the notable African Americans who slid down the baby chute in 1928: Fats Domino, February 26; Drew Bundini Brown (Muhammad Ali's trainer), March 21; writer Maya Angelou, April 4; musicians Maynard Ferguson, May 4, Horace Silver, September 2, and Julian "Cannonball" Adderley, September 15; civil rights organizer James Forman, October 4; noted historian, author, and Ebony magazine editor Lerone Bennett Jr., October 17; and badass bluesman Bo Diddley, December 30.
Shout-outs also to 1928 babies: Adam "Batman" West, composer Burt Bacharach, The Exorcist author William Peter Blatty, Shirley Temple, hairdresser Vidal Sassoon, singer-sausage man Jimmy Dean, and two of my favorite actors, James Garner and James "Our Man Flint" Coburn. James Brown is listed in some sources as being born in 1928 in Pulaski, Tennessee; other sources claim he came along on May 3, 1933, in Barnwell, South Carolina. Only the Godfather of Soul could pull off the feat of being born twice, in two different locations at two different times.
Future career broadcaster Herbert Rogers Kent, yours truly, joined this illustrious group on October 5, 1928, born in Cook County Hospital, in Ward 52. Some people joke that "in the beginning, God created Herb Kent," but hey, I'm not that old.
My father was a pharmacist named Herbert Williams; my mother's name was Katherine Kent. They were not married, and I didn't know my father. I guess he was obviously some type of boyfriend to my mother, but I guess she may not have liked him much because he never came around. I don't know where he is — or was, I'm sure he's dead by now — or what kind of support he provided us.
I had grandparents on my mother's side who lived in Harper's Ferry, West Virginia, but I never saw them either. There's a lot of history in my family. A lot of my family members were mostly Native Americans with a little black.
My mother was part that and part black; she was fair. She was from Virginia and went to Storer College in West Virginia. After working as a schoolteacher there she came to Chicago to seek her fortune, as many people from the South did during those years as part of the Great Migration of southern blacks to Chicago.
In Chicago my mother found a job as a domestic, and she was a very hard worker. She worked for the same white woman for years. We were living at Fifty-Eighth and Prairie on the South Side, not far from where bluesman Willie Dixon ultimately lived, but not at that time.
I was an only child being raised by my mother, and I do remember that she had to go to work many times and leave me all alone. I was four or five. She would put me in the bed in some kind of way where I couldn't roll off, and I'd have to stay there alone. I would be very frightened because I was by myself, and I cried all the time, every time it happened. That's one of my first memories. But she had to work, and sometimes there was no one to look after me.
How about this for another early memory? Mom often left me with a woman called Aunt Mary, and she just thought Aunt Mary was the most wonderful person in the world. So one night I'm there with Aunt Mary, and I'm about five years old. She takes a bath and says, "Come in here." I went into the bathroom and she said, "Get in the tub with me." I'm a little kid and I got in, and she made me suck her titties, which was a pretty disgusting thing to do to a kid.
I hated titties for a long time after that. I still have this feeling about super-big titties that I could get smothered, and it came from that experience. But I didn't tell my mother. I was afraid to.
When I was six, we moved into a boardinghouse at Thirty-Seventh and Giles. My mother only made ten dollars a week as a domestic, and the lady who owned the house would charge us five dollars a week to stay there. So my mother only had another five bucks to ride the streetcar, which was about seven cents, and to buy us the barest necessities at secondhand shops.
The woman who owned the boardinghouse was very mean, very cruel, and used to beat me for doing small stuff. She took it upon herself to do that. I stole a quarter one time, and she beat the shit out of me. The only good thing I can say about that was I've never stolen anything since that time.
Except bread. Living in the boardinghouse, I never got enough to eat. I was very thin, so at night I would go downstairs and steal bread. I was hungry. All the biggest portions of the food would go to the boardinghouse owner, and she would send me to school with brain sandwiches. I complained to my mother once, and the lady got pissed off. Man, a piece of bread with some brains on it — pig brains — I couldn't eat that mess.
One day while we were living at the boardinghouse — and this is a true story, and also the first of my nine lives used up — a car ran over me. I swear. I was six years old, playing in the alley, and this guy had bad brakes, I guess. He bumped me and couldn't stop the car in time. It knocked me over, and the car ran over my midsection, just like that. The guy got out and felt me for injuries, and I remember a girl who was standing there just fainted dead away because it looked so horrible.
But it didn't hurt, didn't break any bones, didn't even break any skin, so I jumped up, ran upstairs, and told the boardinghouse lady.
"I just got run over by a car," I said.
And she gave me a whupping because she said I was telling a lie.
Was it an angel lifting the car off me? I dunno. You hear stories like that — and that God takes care of fools and babies.
* * *
America at the time was in the midst of the Great Depression. Everybody in the neighborhood was poor, and a lot of them were poorer than me. Some thought I had money, that's how poor those kids were.
You'd go in their houses, and you would smell Fly Dead, which was an insecticide. It was everywhere killing them damn roaches, and you could smell it. You could smell that and pee. Little kids would have peed in a pile of clothes or something like that. But I was quite used to it, absolutely quite used to it.
How poor was I, and did I know it? I knew that I didn't have as much to eat as many of the other kids. I especially knew it at Christmastime. Some of the kids I knew had wonderful Christmases with cap pistols, bow-and-arrow sets, bikes, and all kinds of stuff. I would have a stocking with maybe an apple, a pecan nut, a peppermint candy stick, maybe some gloves and a scarf. But I was happy to get it.
My mother and I had to live in the same room at this boardinghouse. One year shortly before Christmas — I guess I was about nine — I kept hearing this sound, every night, the same sound, a rattling, paper-shuffling kind of sound, and I couldn't figure out what it was.
I finally found out on Christmas Day. My mother opened the closet door to surprise me with this big, thick, long peppermint stick she had bought me and hidden there — but it was destroyed, eaten away! I just started crying because I knew that sound I kept hearing was the damn mice, night after night, eating up my peppermint stick. Damn Christmas mice.
To make up for that terrible experience the next year, when I was ten, my mother gave me a radio, which I think was the best gift I ever got. It cost eight dollars brand-new. That was almost her entire week's salary.
* * *
During my years from ages four to ten, I would sum things up by saying I was an only child, very skinny, and a scaredy kid. I got beat a lot and was hungry a lot. Made me scaredy — I was like a tiny Don Knotts, scared of my own shadow.
I was very protected — a momma's boy — and shunned everything. Maturity came to me slowly, gradually changing me from a momma's boy into a man. I haven't the slightest idea why; who knows? I sometimes think I'm still not as mature as I should be.
I also don't know why my mother never had any more kids. We never talked about it. I always wanted a sister, somebody that I could be close to, but other than that, I wasn't lonely.
That seems like a quirky thing. I was a loner, but I wasn't lonely. I played with the girl down the street, then I met my three buddies — Charles, Lawrence, and Herman — at the tail end of grammar school, when we were ten, eleven, or twelve, and we became inseparable. When they weren't around for whatever reason, I had little toy soldiers that I played with. I listened to the radio. I was never a lonely kid and always found something to do.
* * *
And in fact, even though I was a scaredy kid, I was pretty independent. My mother would take me to church — she loved that church — until I was old enough, like six or seven, to ride the streetcar. Then I'd just get on the streetcar and go to church by myself. I also would walk to school by myself at an early age.
Kids did that kind of thing back then. You didn't have the predators that you have now. Or maybe they were there, but people just didn't know about them, because it was nothing to be seven years old and walk to school or get on the streetcar.
Your mother would say, "Get on the streetcar and tell the man where you want to get off." So you'd get on the streetcar and tell the man, "I want to get off at Forty-Fourth Street," and he would set you up.
Times have really changed. My mother and I also used to sleep in the park, especially in Washington Park, around the time of the annual Bud Billiken Parade. You could just sleep out, camp out, and no one would bother you. It was a more innocent time, and of course you cannot do that type of thing today without ending up as a crime statistic or in jail because sleeping in the park is no longer legal.
* * *
I was a smart kid — a very smart kid — which is one reason my mother trusted me to go to church and walk to school by myself. Never really been dumb. Always got good grades, though I got better grades in college than high school.
I played around in high school. I had a great memory, and the teachers were always pissed at me because I wouldn't do homework. I didn't have to; I was very smart, remembered stuff, passed tests. All except math — I wasn't very good at that. Everything else, no problem. In grammar school, in fifth grade, I was smarter than anybody. I was just a genius. I always could read very well.
I attended three grammar schools — Carter, Raymond, and Sexton, where I graduated. My mother kept moving me from school to school, always searching for the school that would be the best for me. One thing I just loved her for is that she had this thing about education, and she felt I had to be in the best school possible.
She was very strict with me — a lot of stuff other kids were allowed to do, I was not — but she was a good mother and instilled in me the idea to be a notch above everybody in whatever I did and to succeed in life. She taught me that, and taught me that, and taught me that. I guess I get my drive from her; she wanted me to be somebody.
So when I graduated from Sexton, which was a predominantly white school at Sixtieth and Cottage, I wanted to go to Wendell Phillips High School, but she said no, you're going to Hyde Park High School, a public school located near the University of Chicago, now called Hyde Park Career Academy. She thought that Phillips didn't match up to Hyde Park academically.
But I didn't want to go to Hyde Park, which was also nearly all white, and I cried like a baby. I didn't have anything against white schools per se; I just wanted to go where my friends went, and that was to the neighborhood schools, which were generally all black. She enrolled me there anyway, and the first day I went to Hyde Park, the first thing I saw was this shapely blonde standing in front of me waiting to go in. My tears vanished.
I'm glad I went and graduated from there, though, and not just for the girls. A lot of good people came out of Hyde Park High School — Steve Allen, Mel Torme, Herbie Hancock, and Minnie Riperton come immediately to mind; I'm sure there are a lot more distinguished Hyde Park alums.
At the time, everything on the other side of Drexel Avenue on the South Side of Chicago was white, all of it. Blacks lived on Federal Street over by the railroad tracks and along South Parkway (now King Drive) up to Sixty-Third Street, and after that, it was mostly all white.
You'd think it would have been difficult to get into Sexton and then Hyde Park, but all we did was give them phony addresses about where we lived, and they never questioned it.
* * *
OK, so this is where my "killer cousins" come in. I did have extended family. I had five girl cousins who were really like sisters to me, and every Sunday my mother would take me to visit her sister, Aunt Dora, who was the girls' mother, and we would have Sunday dinner.
All those girls are dead now, every last one of them. I guess I've just about outlived everybody I know, and actually, that's a little scary. But I feel pretty good healthwise, and maybe I'll still be telling these same stories to people fifty years from now.
One of the girls was younger than me, one was my age, and three were slightly older than me. They went to Sexton, too — it was Aunt Dora's address that I used to get in there and Hyde Park — so in addition to seeing my cousins on Sundays, I'd stop by during the week after school.
Some of those girls hated me, brother, because not only was I a momma's boy, I was also a snitch. I told Aunt Dora and my mother if I saw them kissing boys or smoking cigarettes. To get even with me, what they did was play this game called Be Brave.
In a house near where they lived there was a really mean dog. One time, they told me, "Go in there and pet that dog."
I was real little at the time, but I said, "I'm not crazy, that dog is mean."
They shouted, "BE BRAVE!"
So I said OK, jumped in there, and that dog bit the shit out of me.
Another Be Brave moment I never will forget happened when they were living in a third-floor walkup apartment on St. Lawrence Avenue. The girls put me in this green buggy and said, "Are you going to BE BRAVE?" I said, "Uh-huh," and they pushed that buggy down the whole three flights of steps!
Oh man, they hated my guts. I could have been mauled to death by the dog or broken my neck careening down those stairs in the buggy, so there's two and three out of my nine lives that I used up with my cousins, I guess.
* * *
My cousins called me a nerd because I told on them all the time, but I wasn't a nerd. I was just a smart little kid who liked to draw. I thought I could draw, and maybe I could some. Not very well, but good enough to get a little scholarship to the Art Institute after high school. That wasn't really my calling, however. The radio thing was what I wanted ... and ultimately what I got.
(ANSWER TO QUESTION ON PAGE 2)
Amos 'n' Andy originally debuted in 1926 on WGN radio in Chicago as Sam 'n' Henry, a drama about two black men from Alabama who came to Chicago to start the Fresh Air Taxicab Company. After a falling-out with WGN, the two white creators of the show, Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll, moved over to WMAQ in 1928, but they were legally barred from using the title Sam 'n' Henry. So they changed the characters' names to Amos and Andy. Sponsors forced the show to be located in Harlem instead of Chicago and turned it into slapstick comedy instead of drama.CHAPTER 2
Falling in Love with Radio as a Kid
What artist has had the most number one R & B hits?
(ANSWER ON PAGE 16)
One of the reasons I wasn't lonely as a child was that I could listen to the radio. That was my first love, man, I loved radio — loved it, loved it, loved it. I guess I was just kind of born into radio; it's my thing, it's always been part of my life.
I was barely tall enough to turn the radio on — I had to stand on tippytoes to reach the knobs — but turn it on I would, and constantly. It was just the most amazing thing to me. I was fascinated by it.
I used to listen to Jack L. Cooper, Chicago's first black deejay. He had a program called Red Hot & Lowdown, where they played all this music, and I was just jamming. And later, as I was growing up and the technology developed, I'd be under the covers with a portable radio. Man, at night, listening to a turned-down radio was just. ... oh, wow!
When I got into high school, I started making radios — actually making them, soldering and all — because I loved the way they smelled, the way they sounded. You have to realize that this was a tremendously new phenomenon. Radio as we know it has only been around since the early 1920s, so it is only eight years or so older than me. It was technologically as explosive in its time as the Internet is today. Let me give you a brief, informal history on how this amazing new method of communications evolved in its early stages.
Excerpted from The Cool Gent by Herb Kent, David Smallwood. Copyright © 2009 Herb Kent. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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